Walk into any supermarket and you’ll see thousands of items to choose from. But how do we select the healthiest foods for ourselves and our families? Luckily, we can rely on nutrition labels to guide us in making the healthiest choices. Reading every label might seem overwhelming at first but when you know what to look for, the nutrition label becomes a tool that can help you make smarter choices. (TIP: Always go to the market on a full stomach and with a grocery list to avoid purchasing any unhealthy items!). Here are seven important things to look for when reading nutrition labels:
This number is at the top for a reason: The nutritional information on the rest of the label applies to one serving. The FDA sets serving sizes for all foods―they are measurements, not recommendations, which is an important thing to remember. Total calories are calculated per serving, so be sure to look at the servings per container. A box of crackers might list a serving as 150 calories, but the entire box might be three servings, or 450 calories.
Percent of Daily Value (DV)
This is calculated based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. A tip for using the %DV is that anything 5%DV and lower is considered “low” and anything 20%DV or higher is considered “high.” So for things like fat, cholesterol, and sodium look for 5% or less and for things like fiber, vitamins, and calcium look for 20% or more.
“Reduced Sugar,” “Low Sugar,” or “ No Sugar Added”
Unfortunately these labels aren’t synonymous with “low calorie.” “Reduced sugar” means the product contains 25 percent less sugar than the original form. “Low sugar” isn’t a regulated term and can mean anything. “No sugar added” simply indicates that no sugar was introduced during the preparation, cooking, or baking process — not that the product is low in sugar. It may contain fructose, which still shows up as “sugar” on the nutrition-facts panel (as with unsweetened applesauce, for instance). Tip: Try calculating sugar content in teaspoons for an eye opening experience. First, find the number of grams of sugar in one serving of the product. Four grams of sugar equal about 1 teaspoon. The American Heart Association recommends a daily maximum of about 6-8 teaspoons (or 24-32 grams) of added sugar (meaning sugar that’s beyond what food naturally contains). And remember: Even if you don’t see sugar in the ingredients, it might be there. It goes by many other names, including molasses, evaporated cane juice, nectar, corn sweetener, honey, syrup, and anything ending with -ose (sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose).
Meat, poultry, or seafood labeled “extra lean” must meet strict requirements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Every 100-gram serving (about 3.5 ounces) must have fewer than 5 grams of total fat, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. If you’re cutting back on fat, extra-lean products are a better choice than those labeled “lean,” which can contain up to twice as much total fat (10 grams) and saturated fat (4.5 grams) per serving, with the same maximum amount of cholesterol.
“Low Fat” or “Reduced Fat”
Foods labeled “low fat” are required by the FDA to contain fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving. “Reduced fat” means the food must contain at least 25 percent less fat than the original form. Tip: Low fat or reduced fat isn’t always the best option. Sometimes there are nutritional tradeoffs: Reduced-fat peanut butter, for example, may contain more sodium and sugar to make it taste better. Read the nutrition facts before you buy.
“99 Percent Fat-Free”
This one involves you to go back to your high school math class…“99 percent fat-free” means that 99 percent of a given weight of the food is fat-free. If the food weighs 100 grams, 1 gram comes from fat. Every gram of fat contains 9 calories, so depending on the serving size, a 99 percent fat-free food may contain more fat calories than you would expect.
This one tends to confuse a lot of folks. What it really means is that your bread, cereal, chips, or crackers contain two or more grains. They are not necessarily whole grains, which are a better nutritional choice than refined ones. With refined grains (such as white bread, or wheat breads that aren’t specifically labeled “whole wheat”), the nutrient and fiber rich parts have been milled out. The current recommendation is to make sure at least half your daily grains are whole. Tip: Whole-grain products list the word whole (as in “whole wheat” or “whole oats”) among the first few ingredients. You might also look for the Whole Grains Council’s symbol. Companies can pay to join this organization and receive its “stamp” on products that deliver at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving.
This information pertains to products with food labels, which you can typically find on most items in the supermarket and some at the farmer’s market. Try to do most of your shopping on the outer rim of the market where you’ll find fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts, beans, and other whole foods to avoid having to look at too many food labels on processed foods. Choose items with as few ingredients as possible and use the information above to be an educated shopper!
Save these quick tips to your health-related Pinterest board for quick reference in the grocery store:
Be Well, Be NutritionWise!
~ Nicole Meadow, MPN, RD, CSP, CLC
1. Add all ingredients to a high-powered blender and mix for about 30 seconds- 1 minute, gradually increasing speed until all ingredients are thoroughly pulverized and combined.
2. Drink up!
What is your favorite green smoothie recipe? Tell us in the comments!
Recipes by Meredith Baird. Meredith is a certified raw food chef and instructor. She is also the creative director at the Matthew Kenney Academy where chefs and health foodies can learn the art of making raw food.
This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!
Ingredient: Calendula Flower Extract
Botanical name: Calendula Officinalis
Calendula = Of Latin origin referring to the calendar (specifically, the first day of every month) because of this plant’s long flowering period.
Officinalis = Latin adjective meaning it was an official medicinal herb.
What it is: Just like the name says, this is an extract of Calendula flowers (also known as marigold flowers). It’s extracted through a process as old as time (well, not that old, but it’s an ancient technique for sure!). We simply soak fresh petals like a giant cup of tea, and then filter out the herb extract concentrate.
What it does: Calendula flowers have many uses, from making natural dyes to adding color and extra nutrients to salads. Best of all, these happy little flowers have a wide range of medicinal benefits, which have led to their harvest and use for many centuries. They’re often used in teas and tinctures, but we’re more interested in external applications like the following:
When the flowers are made into extracts, balms, and salves and applied directly to the skin, it helps heal wounds, soothe inflamed and damaged skin, improve skin hydration and firmness, and treat burns, bruises, and cuts, as well as the minor infections they cause.
Teas made from calendula are used as compresses to treat conjunctivitis, diaper rashes, and other inflammatory conditions of the skin.
Why we use it: With such a long and impressive history of use, choosing Calendula extract for our body care products was almost a no-brainer. It’s extremely effective, versatile, non-toxic, and eco-friendly. And, as far as natural resources go, they’re a great choice because they’re so easy to grow. They tolerate most soils and many climates — and, once they get going, they offer bounteous blooms for months on end!
Why we’re featuring it today: We’ve had customers ask about the safety of using Calendula during pregnancy — specifically after reading about Calendula being linked to miscarriages.
Today we wanted to take the opportunity to clarify that the only references in the scientific literature regarding miscarriage and Calendula are from consuming relatively large amounts during pregnancy — either via tea or herbal supplements. The exposure route (dermal) and concentration levels (much, much lower) are completely different in our body care products.
We’re confident in the safety of our formulas, but we always encourage everyone to discuss concerns with their healthcare providers. Perhaps if someone was prone to miscarriages, her OBGYN would recommend avoiding body care products with Calendula — we don’t know! That’s for a woman and her doctor to decide.
Please let us know if you have any other questions or comments — we love hearing from our community!
Kemper K. Calendula (Calendula officinalis). The Longwood Herbal Task Force and The Center for Holistic Pediatric Education and Research.
Preethi KC, Kuttan R. Wound healing activity of flower extract of Calendula officinalis. J Basic Clin Physiol Pharmacol. 2009;20(1):73-9.
Pommier P, Gomez F, Sunyach MP, D’Hombres A, Carrie C, Montbarbon X. Phase III randomized trial of Calendula officinalis compared with trolamine for the prevention of acute dermatitis during irradiation for breast cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22:1447–1453. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2004.07.063.
Calendula. University of Maryland Medical Center.
Antibiotics. Anti-bacterial soap. Alcohol hand sanitizers. Antimicrobial tissues. Bugs are the enemy. Right?
Well, not really. Not all microbes are bad. Many microbes are good for us and without some of our symbiotic flora (the hundreds of types of bacteria that live in our digestive systems) we wouldn’t be as healthy. That’s why in my practice and for my family, I strive to harness the beneficial effects of good flora using probiotics.
When I first broach the topic with patients, I’m often asked, “What are probiotics? How do I know which probiotics to take? I eat yogurt, do I still need to take a probiotic? Should my children be taking them?”
What are probiotics?
There is evidence that the gut microflora can impact the development of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. Maintaining a healthy gut is essential to lifelong wellness. Probiotics are live organisms that can help balance the microflora in the gastrointestinal tract by preventing harmful bacteria from growing, aiding in digestion and boosting the immune system. For this reason, I especially recommend using probiotics after episodes of diarrhea, antibiotics and gastrointestinal illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome to help restore and balance gut flora.
How do I know which probiotics to take?
A good quality, high potency probiotic should contain a combination of live bugs such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium bifidum and/or Bifidobacterium infantis with the Colony Forming Units (CFU’s) in the billions, 5-100 Billion. After antibiotics and during acute episodes of diarrhea, I typically recommend 100+ billion CFU, whereas a maintenance dose for adults and for children would be closer to 5-12 Billion.
Is yogurt enough?
Probably not. Yogurt does not provide enough probiotics for most people. Most yogurts from the grocery store do not contain as many CFU’s as probiotic supplements, and some yogurts do not contain any. Yogurt also has a lot of sugar, which may weaken the immune system and feed other pathologic microbes like candida.
Should my children be taking them?
I’ve been giving my children probiotics since they were newborns and continue to give them probiotics on and off through the years as needed. In my practice, I recommend a probiotic to many if not all the children I see to improve their health. As a naturopathic doctor, I believe that gastrointestinal health begins in utero and continues to develop in the first 2 years of life. Probiotics can help prevent and treat a number of common childhood illnesses and complaints like allergies, constipation, colic and eczema.
Despite the recent growth in antibacterial consumer products, we now know that some microbes are good for us. In fact, balancing gut microbes can be essential to maintaining health. I hope this clarifies the mystery behind probiotics.
Take care and be in good health!
Dr. Jill Kenney is a licensed Naturopathic Physician in Connecticut. She received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Kenney also received a Certificate in Homeopathic Medicine from National College of Natural Medicine, which is the oldest accredited naturopathic medical school in the country. She aims to utilize the healing power of nature to address the underlying causes of illness. Like all well-trained naturopaths, Dr. Kenney hopes to prevent disease by helping clients achieve a fundamentally healthy lifestyle through nutrition, exercise, and a balanced work, personal and spiritual life. Dr. Kenney resides in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters.